I was recently told that the Seine is said to be the only river in the world that runs between two bookshelves. This of course refers to the ‘bouquinistes’, the second hand and antiquarian booksellers that have their iconic green boxes along the banks of the river. The booksellers were granted their concessions along the river in 1859, and there are now around 240 of them, with the boxes containing a total of over 300 000 books. The concessions are highly prized and apparently hard to come by, and the bouquinistes were listed as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1991.
The rules are quite strict, the boxes must have specific dimensions and all look the same. Each bouquiniste is allowed a maximum of 4 boxes: 3 must contain books, the fourth can sell stamps, souvenirs, old magazines or postcards. They must open 4 days a week minimum, whatever the weather (you’ll usually find them open in the afternoons).
Strolling along the riverside and exploring the bouquinistes is a wonderful way to spend an afternoon. Most of the books are in French, they range from paperbacks to collectors items, but for those who don’t read French you can also find some beautiful old posters (most are reproductions) and copies of old maps of the city, which I particularly love. The green boxes have become one of the well loved symbols of the city, the views across the river are spectacular, and you may even be able to pick up a treasure or two.
- On the Right Bank from Pont Marie to Quai du Louvre, and the Left Bank from Quai de la Tournelle to Quai Voltaire
The Sainte Chapelle is often overlooked by visitors to Paris. Thousands flock to Notre Dame just a few hundred metres away, some go further and wander around the beautiful Ile de la Cité, but the Sainte Chapelle, hidden away inside the grounds of the law courts, can go unnoticed.
Built in 1248 upon the orders of the King Saint-Louis, the Sainte Chapelle was to originally built to house the crown of thorns (today you can see this inside Notre Dame Cathedral). It’s a masterpiece of gothic architecture, and is probably most famous for it’s 600m2 of stained glass windows.
A huge restoration project on the windows has just been completed (April 2015) and they are spectacular. Two thirds of the glass is original. The Sainte Chapelle is small, and the effect of the light streaming in through the glass is breathtaking, filling the space with light and colour.
Next time don’t pass by! Look out for the spire as you pass the law courts on the Ile de la Cité. The lines can get long, so buy a timed entry ticket online, you don’t need long for the visit and it really is something very special.
- Sainte Chapelle, 8 Boulevard du Palais, 75001 Paris
Open daily 09:30 – 18:00 (17:00 in winter)
Sainte Chapelle website
As the sun comes out and the trees burst into blossom, it’s time for the Parisians to head outside and enjoy relaxing in the beautiful parks and squares all across the city.
One of my favourites is the tiny, triangular Place Dauphine on the tip of the Ile de la Cité. After the Place des Vosges, the Place Dauphine was the second royal square of the city – the male heir to the French throne was known as ‘le Dauphin’ and Henri IV had this square built in 1610 in honour of his son, the future Louis XIII. Like the Place des Vosges, it is surrounded by symmetrical and identical houses, although since then many have been modified and restored. Today the lower floors house cafés and art galleries, and the square is a tranquil and beautiful place to sit and have a drink or just enjoy the views.
Simone Signoret and Yves Montand lived at number 15, Jacques Dutronc famously sang ‘Je suis le dauphin de la Place Dauphine’. Mythical as well as beautiful, the Place Dauphine is a wonderful place to stop and sit whatever the weather.
- Place Dauphine, 75001 Paris. metro: Pont Neuf or Cité
The Ile St Louis is particularly beautiful in the winter, more so than in the summer in my opinion. The pale grey and white of the buildings and shutters blends with the grey Parisian skies, and is punctuated here and there by flowers, the black outline of a tree, or a few remaining yellow leaves. Much quieter than in the summer months, you can get a taste of how life used to be here in days gone by.
The Ile St Louis is the smaller of the two islands on the Seine in the heart of the city, and really feels like a separate small town. In fact those who lived there used to say that they were going to Paris, the mainland or even the continent when they left and crossed the bridges into the city. One of the oldest preserved sections of the city (and now boasting some of the most expensive real estate around), the island is filled with magnificent 17th century townhouses, many concealing beautiful courtyards and bearing plaques telling the stories of the nobles and famous residents who once lived there. One main street bisects the island and is filled with shops and cafés, the most famous of course being Berthillon, the ice cream parlour that brings people flocking here in the summer.
If you have a chance, go for a wander around the island. You can take a bottle of wine, buy a baguette and some cheese from the wonderful shop on the rue St Louis en l’Ile and eat it down by the riverside, followed by an ice cream and a stroll through the quiet streets.
- Ile St Louis, 75004 Paris. metro: Sully Morland or Pont Marie
Located on the Ile de la Cité, right in the heart of Paris and just around the corner from Notre Dame, is the flower and bird market. Open daily from 8am to 7pm, it’s a profusion of flowers and plants, partly outdoors but also covered under metal market stalls built in the early 1900’s. The market has been here since 1808, and is a riot of colours and perfumes. It’s small and picturesque, on Sundays it becomes a bird market. It’s well worth a detour if you are in the area visiting Notre Dame or the Sainte Chapelle. The Ile de la Cité itself is beautiful and a wonderful place for a morning walk.
- Place Louis Lepine and Quai de la Corse, 75004 Paris metro: Cité
Notre Dame cathedral is one of those must see places in Paris that can’t be missed. Who can visit it and not be inspired to read Victor Hugo’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame?
However the part I like best is the towers. From here you get some of the best views in Paris. Built right in the heart of the city, the views beat even the Eiffel Tower in my opinion – you’re high enough to see for miles yet close enough to be able to pick out the details.
But even better? The gargoyles and especially the chimera. The gargoyles are used to drain water away from the cathedral, it usually runs out of their mouths. The chimera however are my favourites, they represent all kinds of imaginary beasts, many of them half animal and half human, and all looking out accross the city.
Even the roof of the cathedral itself is incredibly beautiful, and full of detail.
The lines can be long. Oh yes, and there are 387 steps! And that’s not even right to the top, you can keep going if you want to. But it’s well worth the climb. And you can always book a skip the line tour, these include a walk around the beautiful Ile de la Cité, tons of fascinating history about the island and the cathedral, and of course you get whisked straight past those annoying lines…
- Cathédrale Notre Dame de Paris. Ile de la Cité. métro Cité or St Michel
Open daily until 6.45pm
Summer in Paris wouldn’t be the same without Berthillon ice cream. A family run establishment that has been situated on the Ile St Louis for 60 years, they are generally acknowledged to be the best in the city.
The list of flavours of ice creams and sorbets is incredibly long, and they are made with all natural ingredients, no preservatives or artificial sweeteners here. In a year they will produce over 60 different flavours, depending on the season. Their main shop is situated on the rue St Louis en l’Ile but they are sold by other shops on the island, we bought ours at one just around the corner to avoid the long lines.
Be careful, their main shop closes for the whole month of August! They are also closed Monday and Tuesday. The others retailers remain open though.
Make sure you don’t miss it – I can of course vouch for the fact that they are extremely delicious! Even friends who are not crazy about ice cream and who I insist try one end up agreeing they are wonderful.
- Maison Berthillon, 31 rue St Louis en l’Ile, 75004 Paris. Metro: Pont Marie